Graham Wood recently published a widely-read article entitled “What ISIS really wants and how to stop it” and has received much praise for his insights. His article is not without its problems, however, and I highlighted some critiques in a short posting on my personal blog.
I want to engage a little more with some of the questions that are being asked by Wood and others, starting with a key pattern of discourse that I see repeatedly. A recent interview by Sky News’ Kay Burley with Cerie Bullivant of Cage UK exemplifies this:
Burley is not known for her nuanced and sensitive reporting. However, asking Bullivant whether he condemned the beheadings ascribed to Londoner Mohammed Emwazi in the way she did is simply a more boorish form of a demand to take responsibility for others’ crimes that is often made of Muslims but not others, as numerous commentators have repeatedly pointed out ever since the 2001 attacks on Washington and New York, and indeed before that. This cartoon from The Muslim Show, referring to the killing of Americans Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Muhammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, outlines this in simple terms:
The thinking behind this kind of demand for condemnation implies that ‘Islam is somehow to blame’ and that ‘Muslims must condemn’ atrocities committed by other Muslims in order to justify their place in society to non-Muslims. It is a classic case of the No True Scotsman fallacy, as I described last year – ‘true’ Muslims would not do such things, so to prove one is a ‘true’ Muslim one must condemn such acts.
Burley was engaging in classic Islamophobia, as Bullivant noted, but he was trying to point to something more – that there are social and political factors that create particular responses. The post-Westphalian nation-states we have in Europe rest upon offering security and stability to those who live in them in exchange for allowing a Weberian monopoly of force. But what happens when the monopoly of force is misused and the promised stability and order becomes uncertainty and threat?
Islamophobia is a long-standing problem in the UK (cf. the original 1997 Runnymede Trust report), and harassment of Muslims by government authorities and others is widespread, whether it be attempts to recruit Muslims to work for the security services (e.g. 2009 and 2013), the targeting of Muslim charities (2014), the impact of counter-terrorism measures on all areas of life (2011), or everyday street harassment (e.g. 2014 and follow-up); that is before I even begin to point to systemic hate speech from the Daily Mail and other elements of the right-wing and gutter press. All this is happening all the time in the UK, before we even begin looking further afield at the continued attacks on Muslim innocents by the UK and its close allies, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine or elsewhere.
Although Burley did not want to hear it, all this frames the lives of many Muslims in the UK. It can hardly come as a surprise that resentment against the nation-state – that supposedly promises stability and security – then grows.
Whilst growing up with state harassment might be the norm for those of our fellow citizens going to fight for ISIS, it seems a fair number have very little in-depth knowledge of the Islam that Burley and her ilk seem to assume is their motivation. That two British men wanting to fight in Syria had in part prepared themselves by buying The Koran for Dummies and similar titles highlights their ignorance of Islam, rather than their inspiration from it.
It is not, then, some diffuse conception of ‘religion’ that provides the motivation for jihad, but an understanding of profound injustice inflicted upon the individual and their family, friends and their ‘imagined community’ (pace Benedict Anderson) that leads to a disillusionment with the ideal of a nation-state governed by the monopoly of force guaranteeing stability and security. It is not a surprise that such injustice elicits a response – in fact, I would go so far as to say that wanting to respond to injustice is a natural reaction.
Of course, what that response might be is still a decision for the individual – murder is not a pre-determined outcome of outrage at injustice; I would hope for a different response. However, once the decision to go down that route has been made, self-justification becomes necessary, and that is where (mis-)understandings of a tradition can arise. None of this is new. For example, Prussian (predominantly Protestant) soldiers on the German side in World War I wore belt buckles that had “Gott mit uns” (“God with us”) stamped onto them, whilst British Anglican bishops spoke of a Christian “crusade” to kill Germans – both sides using the breakdown of political and social order to pursue war, and both sides then claiming (the same Protestant!) God to be on their side. The war was not a Christian war in any meaningful sense, but the (mis-)interpretation of Christian belief was used to motivate the poor soldiers who had to fight in it.
From the very beginning Wood’s article falls for the fallacy that ISIS is about ‘Islam': ‘It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs…’ or ‘The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.’ But such statements do not help understanding – do we measure ‘Islamicness’ on a scale of 1 to 10? Whilst certain aspects of his article offer pointers to appropriate geopolitical responses to ISIS (e.g. parts of section IV – always presuming ISIS is as predictable as he is suggesting), describing ISIS as ‘very’ Islamic is not very helpful.
Of course, doing something about the manifold injustices in our societies and the ways in which our governments lead and encourage the attacks on marginalised communities is much more difficult than claiming ‘their Islam’ needs to change – but in the longer-term the former is undoubtedly more effective. Instead of asking Muslims to condemn certain crimes, or arguing about ‘how Islamic’ a movement is, changing the way our society relates to Muslims who are an integral part of it, as well as those abroad, can create the spaces for responses that are more positive (and dare I say it, more hopeful) than the responses of the tiny minority joining ISIS just now. Deconstructing understandings of ‘religion’ in society is a part of that – but deconstructing our society’s self-understanding in order to address systemic injustices is a far more wide-reaching issue that emphasises our collective responsibilities in creating a more just world.